The exploratory drummer/leader and accomplice to Joe Morris, Craig Taborn, and others at the forefront of the jazz avant-garde has a deep respect for existing forms—and a healthy attitude about working around them.
Detroit native Gerald Cleaver is that rare drummer for whom the music presents a kind of doorway that he charges through, abandoning almost all sense of self, surrendering to the source. Cleaver has the gift of transparency; his drums move forward with the music, each bar taking on its own meaning with no adherence to past or future tenses.
On recent recordings with the New York improvisers Taylor Ho Bynum, Joe Morris, Craig Taborn, Chris Lightcap, and Ben Waltzer, Cleaver plays pure chameleon. With Waltzer’s piano trio on One Hundred Dreams Ago, he swings à la Philly Joe Jones. On Altitude, by guitarist Joe Morris’s incendiary group, he sandblasts the terrain clean. And on Ivo Perelman’s Enigma, he plays double drums with the equally proficient Whit Dickey. In every guise, on every gig, his drumming exists in the reactive release of sound, each note born anew. Cleaver never repeats himself.
The drummer’s own recordings reveal his evolution. On Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit (2008), you can hear Tony Williams and Elvin Jones streaming out from a low tuned, resonant kit. But by 2011’s Be It as I See It, with his Uncle June group, Cleaver has shaken the past, chasing rhythms and setting them free. Book of Three’s Continuum, featuring Cleaver, Bynum, and John Hébert, is also fresh, and finds Cleaver juggling, bucking, swinging, darting, and dancing among the intimate yet bold improvisations. What all of these recordings suggest is that the guy is almost impossible to pin down stylistically, and even harder to describe.
Of his latest release as a leader, Black Host’s Life in the Sugar Candle Mines, Cleaver says, “I just wanted to capture a sound that reflects all my loves at the present moment—the activity and excitement generated in static sound and extreme dynamics, melodicism within heavy texture, deep-rooted groove, unchained abandon, and the power and revelation of recurring form.” Joined on the album by Cooper -Moore on piano and synth, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Darius Jones on alto sax, and Pascal Niggenkemper on bass, Cleaver blends blistering psychedelia, boiling electronic vistas, and heated improvisations that conjure ECM meets Bitches Brew via Cecil Taylor. Sugar Candle Mines rocks. It swings. It breathes deeply, collapses, and is resurrected.
A former middle school music teacher with serious reservations about the current state of jazz education, Cleaver, now residing in New York City, is a fresh thinker, a bold drummer, and an exciting performer in a town whose clash of cultures and sound is captured perfectly by his mercurial music.
MD: You play many styles of jazz with such authenticity, from straight-ahead to avant-garde to free, from trio to octet to big band. The path to traditional jazz drumming is well documented, but what do you think about when playing avant-garde or free jazz?
Gerald: That could be a daylong conversation. It really is about context. I don’t consider free music as being free to play anything you want to play. Of course, you’re only bound by your imagination, but it’s about making different types of associations. That’s why I don’t feel bound by swinging. I’ve taught students where I give them an assignment to, say, transcribe a particular drummer. Some say, “I’m not into that. I don’t want to be constricted.”
MD: What specific transcriptions will you have them do?
Gerald: Perhaps a Philly Joe Jones solo. But if they don’t want to do it, fine. From my perspective I’m trying to give them something that would allow them to go deeper in forming their own context for that music, which would ultimately be a wellspring for any type of music they would want to play.
MD: Don’t you have to be able to play “in” before you can play “out”?
Gerald: I don’t think so. I don’t feel like you have to do everything in order to do one thing.
MD: You don’t have to start at A to get to B?
Gerald: No. You can start wherever you are. I’m lucky—my dad, John Cleaver, is a jazz drummer. So I heard the music from the womb. It was like the paint on the walls; it was part of home. I also liked AM pop music, like the Beatles. I wanted to figure out those beats, and I loved their harmonies. When I was in my teens I got into jazz-rock, then Tony Williams with Miles Davis. So I didn’t start loving jazz—I started with a different direction. So you can start off being a classical or rock player.
MD: But don’t you need to understand “splang-a-lang,” as Kenny Washington calls it, before you can play more abstractly?
Gerald: That depends on what you are creating. Obviously, in order to communicate you need a language and you need to understand how to use that language. That’s as far as I will take it. Some people create their own language, like Cecil Taylor. He created his own harmonies and scales. But everyone is using the building blocks of music.
It depends on what you consider necessary. I feel as free as I do within many types of music because I don’t have any preconceived notions of what I’m supposed to do. Detroit had a good feeling when I was growing up—anything was possible there. I wasn’t into cliques where I was told, “We don’t do that kind of music.”
MD: Someone like Milford Graves is renowned for his free or abstract playing from the ’60s. Does he represent free music to you?
Gerald: Everyone has their own conception of what free means. If I’m talking about playing free, to me it may mean something completely different, because what I’m bringing to it are the experiences that I’ve had from listening to many different kinds of music, playing with a lot of people, and dealing with a certain number of hours of study. Any human being is capable of making the music, but they have to communicate some sort of artistic rationale. I feel like I wouldn’t be complete in my conception and vision of the music unless I [understood] the whole history of the music that we call jazz—but that’s just me.
MD: Your drumming is very transparent within the music. On Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit you can hear your Tony Williams and Elvin Jones influences. But on the new record, that’s all gone—it’s just you. What was the process of finding your own approach?
Gerald: A lot of critical listening. A lot of asking why? Why did a certain drummer play that idea at that point in the form over that harmony behind that soloist? Or why did he not play? How does it feel? What did it mean to him or her? What does it mean to me? And a whole lot of hands-on playing.
The other day a student asked me, “How much free playing did you practice?” I told him that I never practiced free playing. It was through the interaction. I feel like it’s a conversation.
MD: You can practice a Philly Joe–style idea with dynamic marks and tempos, but in freer music perhaps the student needs to interact with other musicians.
Gerald: I always want the student to bring a bass player or another musician to play with. Otherwise lessons can become like a postage stamp, like, “Let me apply this beat” or “I will get this coordination thing together.” If they bring in a bass or horn player, someone they can interact with, then I can discern what their level of interaction is and how they apply their technique in the service of actually saying something to another person and interpreting what they’re saying back.
MD: Sometimes listening to Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, or even Vijay Iyer, it’s like being in the midst of a constant crescendo.
Gerald: I think I know what you mean. The idea behind the Black Host record is me presenting the beauty and simplicity of my rock influence, from age nine. These are essentially simple songs. The intent is that there are a lot of levels to the music, and it’s just the interpretation that varies. They’re all very concrete pieces of music, and I want my bandmates to communicate in a specific way and bring out a certain sense of power and even simplicity. Everyone is using extended techniques to broaden the textural palette. All these things are going on, but the most important thing might be the beautiful melody that reaches forward into infinity. That was one idea I had for “Gromek,” this voice that you hear that reaches back a thousand years.
MD: The music is always in a state of becoming.
Gerald: I was shuffling on my iPod recently, and “On Green Dolphin Street” from Live at the Plugged Nickel by Miles Davis came on, with Tony Williams. [Tenor saxophonist] Wayne Shorter just kills me on that record, because he is so profound over a defined structure. You hear infinity in that sense. Then you listen to Tony playing nothing but cymbal, and that rhythm he plays sounds open to all possibilities, even though he’s keeping a normal ride pattern. Even the simplest thing can sound superprofound. Paul Motian does that as well. He had that touch. When he plays I hear a million possibilities.
MD: How did you develop your touch on the drums?
Gerald: By listening to different drummers and trying to get different types of sounds out of the drums, dealing with different techniques. I remember when I was at the University of Michigan, dealing with standard snare drum technique. Experimenting with tension related to technique, how to be relaxed, how to get different sounds, dealing with the brushes, what ultimate sound I want out of the drums, how to go from high to low both in pitch and physically….
MD: A minute ago you mentioned extended techniques. What do you mean?
Gerald: I carry some found things, pieces of metal that I put on the drums or cymbals to extend the sound of the conventional drumset. Percussionists in the orchestra are playing everything. Trap-set drummers used to do that. Look at Sonny Greer behind Duke Ellington—he had all this stuff. That suggests so many possibilities.
MD: How does composing affect or change your drumming?
Gerald: I use the piano to figure out what I’m already hearing in my head. Hearing those sonorities. Often what I’m hearing from a drumistic perspective is more informed by what is happening harmonically and melodically. I’m a drummer for sure, but I’m applying a harmonic and rhythmic solution to whatever ensemble I’m dealing with. That’s why I love texture so much. I love to relate to things harmonically and melodically as well as rhythmically.
MD: You also went to Wayne State University in Detroit. But you didn’t enjoy it, correct?
Gerald: No, the musicians there didn’t really represent the city that I knew. My jazz teacher gave me a D, the lowest passing grade, so I dropped out of the jazz department, knowing I could do better on my own. I had known great players from childhood—Marcus Belgrave, Pistol Allen, Roy Brooks. They encouraged me. I realized that all I really needed was a love for the music, being serious and wanting to learn, and being respectful. And that’s still the case.
Something is terribly wrong with jazz education. It costs way too much money, for one thing. If school costs $60,000 a year, why don’t you just get an apartment, tell your parents you won’t go wild, buy some groceries, seek out somebody who actually plays this music, practice your ass off, and learn? But you’re not screwed if you do go to school. You will go where your heart takes you. Whatever you think you can do, you will do.
MD: What practice regimens made a real difference for you?
Gerald: A ton of playing with records. Doing that when I was eight and nine was crucial for my listening skills. James Brown, the Jackson Five’s “ABC”—I wanted that muffl ed drum sound. Led Zeppelin, all the Bonham stuff was very influential. It was also about forgetting the drums and just playing along. The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.” Or taking two hours to play free-form, where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Later I studied with Victor Lewis.
MD: How did that relate when you began playing freer music in New York?
Gerald: If you’re playing with some real fine improvisers, they’re going to build some exceptional musical architecture. The idea of building structure is very important to me. It can be stream-of-consciousness playing as well. I relate it to a conversation. That cliché can become stretched, but you can elucidate a thesis in real time if you have enough understanding of your subject. It’s like the joy of talking to people who know a lot about a lot of different things and are really passionate. You ask a question and they go off on a tangent and set up something new. That’s what the music is to me.
Black Host Life in the Sugar Candle Mines /// Gerald Cleaver/Uncle June Be It as I See It /// Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit /// Mat Maneri Sustain /// Farmers by Nature Out of This World’s Distortions /// Tomasz Stanko Wislawa /// Craig Taborn Chants /// Anker/Taborn/Cleaver Floating Islands /// Jeremy Pelt The Talented Mr. Pelt /// Ivo Perelman The Hour of the Star
Tools of the Trade
1961 Slingerland 3-ply mahogany in white marine pearl finish
9×13 tom (Remo Fiberskyn 3 batter, Clear Diplomat bottom)
14×14 floor tom (Suede Ambassador batter, Clear Diplomat bottom)
14×18 floor tom converted to bass drum (Fiberskyn 3 batter, Coated Renaissance Ambassador front head)
1962 Slingerland 5.5×14 snare (1955 Radio King counterhoops, Aquarian Modern Vintage Thin batter, Remo Clear Ambassador Snare Side)
1998 Lang 9-ply maple in blue mussel shell sparkle finish
10×12 tom (Aquarian Satin Finish batter, Evans Genera Resonant Clear bottom) 10×13 tom (Uno 58 1000 batter, Genera Resonant Clear bottom) 14×14 floor tom (Uno 58 1000 batter, Genera Resonant Clear bottom)
16×18 bass drum (Evans EQ1 batter, silkscreened Resonant Black front head with Lang Gladstone logo)
4×14 solid maple snare (Billy Gladstone three-way tuning, Evans Uno 58 1000 batter, Remo Clear Ambassador Snare Side)
6×14, 6-ply maple auxiliary snare (Gladstone three-way tuning, Coated Ambassador batter, Clear Ambassador Snare Side)
13″ Spizzichino hi-hats
22″ Bosphorus Masters series ride
22″ Spizzichino ride (or 20″ Paiste Light ride)
20″ Bosphorus Masters series crash/ride with one rivet (or 20″ Avedis Zildjian ride with one rivet)
Two no-name 12″ cymbals and two rotors from an electrical motor, applied to cymbals and drums
Vic Firth SD10 sticks, Regal Tip 583R brushes, Ludwig L195 brushes, Vic Firth General timpani mallets, Promark Cool Rods, and various homemade devices
The Beatles “I Feel Fine” from Beatles ’65 (Ringo Starr) /// Ornette Coleman “Una Muy Bonita” from Change of the Century (Billy Higgins) /// Andrew Hill “Pumpkin” from Black Fire (Roy Haynes) /// Keith Jarrett “Common Mama” from Expectations (Paul Motian) /// Led Zeppelin “Black Dog” from IV (John Bonham) /// Miles Davis “Sivad” from Live-Evil (Jack DeJohnette), “Seven Steps to Heaven” from Seven Steps to Heaven (Tony Williams), “Dear Old Stockholm” from ’Round About Midnight (Philly Joe Jones) /// Joe Henderson “Mode for Joe” from Mode for Joe (Joe Chambers) /// Woody Shaw “Rahsaan’s Run” from Rosewood (Victor Lewis)